Rise of the spoiler parties The Putin administration is building political parties to split the opposition vote. Say hello to new groups from a nationalist novelist and the product director for World of Tanks.
On January 10, news broke that a new organization was entering Russia’s political sphere: the Direct Democracy Party. Its founder, Vyacheslav Makarov, is a video game developer and the product director for World of Tanks, an online role-playing game from the company Wargaming in the arcade tank simulator genre. Makarov’s new project isn’t the only political initiative to arise in Russia just in time for the 2021 State Duma elections that will help decide Vladimir Putin’s future. In total, presidential administration officials are looking to register about 10 new parties. Most of them are intended to create an illusion of open competition or to cause division among opposition-leaning members of the electorate. Two or three of the new parties will be permitted to enter the State Duma’s ranks, where Kremlin officials hope they will spread support for Putin beyond United Russia, the dominant party nationwide. Among the celebrities Kremlin officials would like to see as new opposition leaders are YouTube talk show star Yury Dud and Leningrad frontman Sergey “Shnur” Shnurov.
Niche parties for gamers, patriots, and environmental activists
Kremlin officials are counting on the prospect that several new parties loyal to the current regime will compete in the 2021 Duma elections. The presidential administration’s domestic politics bloc has taken charge of the effort to create and promote these parties. One is the Direct Democracy Party, which World of Tanks Product Director Vyacheslav Makarov announced this month. Zakhar Prilepin, a well-known novelist, also intends to build his own political party on the foundations of the “For Truth” movement.
Both Makarov and Prilepin have spoken about entering their parties in Russia’s regional parliamentary elections in the fall of 2020. If a party manages to gain at least one seat in one legislative body in 2020 by winning between 5 and 7 percent of a region’s votes, that party will receive the right to compete for State Duma seats in 2021 without collecting constituent signatures for a registration petition. That is a crucial advantage: Any party that does not earn automatic election registration in this way must submit a petition signed by 200,000 voters, which is no easy task.
Meduza has learned that the Russian presidential administration intends to create about 10 new parties. Officials have planned out ideological stances for some parties that do not yet have a proposed name or leader. Other parties, like For Truth and the Direct Democracy Party, already have names, faces, and the outlines of a political position. Regional bureaucrats have even begun working to help establish local branches for both parties.
In 2019, Vedomosti reported on the early stages of the presidential administration’s efforts to design new political groups. At that time, the newspaper’s sources said that 20 or 30 parties could end up on the 2021 State Duma ballot but that the Kremlin does not intend to allow allies of Alexey Navalny or Dmitry Gudkov to be among them.
One source in the presidential administration told Meduza that the Kremlin has no ties with the Direct Democracy Party. Other sources said they doubted that assertion. One individual close to the administration said the Kremlin’s new political party projects can be sorted into two categories: those that are intended to become permanent “systemic” parties and temporary parties intended for use in the upcoming elections alone. The source called the latter “TV show parties”: “One example of those is the Direct Democracy Party, or, to be precise, the tank party. Another is Prilepin’s party. What’s being proposed here is not a full-fledged party organization with [regional] branches, leadership bodies, or generally any real roots or plans for long-term work. The most important thing in their case is to be loud and make a lot of noise in the infosphere,” he explained. The source explained that “essentially, these parties will only exist in the media, so they don’t need budgetary infrastructure,” and their budgets themselves will be “relatively small.”
The plan for most of the “TV show parties” that appear on the 2021 ballot will be to create an illusion of competition while dividing the votes of constituents who lean toward the opposition. Presumably, the parties will each receive a very small number of votes as a result, and none of them will actually reach the necessary threshold to enter the State Duma. The result will be an opportunity for voters to express their dissatisfaction without actually affecting the composition of Russia’s federal parliament.
Each of the new parties will occupy a specific niche, targeting a very narrow group of voters such as gamers (as in the Direct Democracy Party’s case) or those concerned with current environmental crises. “Prilepin is for armchair warriors or people who watch political talk shows on state TV channels,” Meduza’s source added.
One administration official working in Russia’s Northwest Federal District said that he and his colleagues received a request in late 2019 from the regional presidential plenipotentiary’s office. In essence, the request was to help Zakhar Prilepin find individuals interested in joining his party and subsequently becoming members of the organization’s regional branch.
The For Truth movement is also attempting to make organizational inroads in the Irkutsk region, according to one politician there. Political strategists who introduced themselves to regional officials as “presidential administration representatives” have evidently been imported to recruit new members for Prilepin’s group. When a source close to the Kremlin learned of their presence from Meduza, he said that those who work within the presidential administration itself do not take part in building new parties. His explanation for the events in Irkutsk was that hired outside strategists claimed closer ties to the administration than they really had to “inflate themselves in the eyes of the locals.” The source said that Kremlin officials only provide strategic direction for efforts like these: They plan out political niches for new parties and then choose outside actors to do on-the-ground strategy work like platform development and recruitment.
Sergey Shnurov and the State Duma’s New Right
The Kremlin also intends to take on heftier political party projects in the near future. These parties will have full-fledged leadership structures and regional branches, and if the presidential administration’s domestic political team has its way, they will ultimately receive representation in the Duma.
The new “systemic” parties will operate on a center-right and possibly even partially liberal agenda, while the “TV show parties” will primarily take a left-wing stance. The latter’s purpose will be to divide the Communist Party electorate. As a source in the Kremlin reasoned, “A new generation of dissatisfied people has appeared that doesn’t just want to vote brainlessly for the KPRF [Communist Party of the Russian Federation].”
Two or three more serious parties will be created so that each can provide backup for the others. The Kremlin is building in that backup from the start in case, “for example, a crisis forms in one of [the parties] like what happened with Mikhail Prokhorov’s Right Cause party in 2012,” a source close to the administration told Meduza. Back then, the source noted, there was no backup party. The crisis in question had to do with Yekaterinburg politician Yevgeny Roizan: The Kremlin did not want Roizman to run for a State Duma seat, but Mikhail Prokhorov decided to defend his ally, meaning that he “started taking on a degree of independent decision-making, including in personnel decisions.”
So far, both the widely popular video blogger Yury Dud and Leningrad bandleader Sergey Shnurov are on the Kremlin’s list of possible frontmen for new parties. As far as Meduza could discover, the Kremlin has not yet proposed a State Duma run to either celebrity. However, there is a firm belief in Kremlin circles that Shnurov would be very likely to participate in a new political project. A source close to the State Duma’s administrative apparatus said the rock star “has demonstrated a taste for politics during meetings for the societal council of the Culture Committee, and he does see himself going into politics.” Meduza was unable to reach Sergey Shnurov to inquire about his opinion on the matter.
One of Meduza’s sources indicated that members of United Russia, the federally dominant party led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, have expressed skepticism about the prospect of allowing new systemic opposition parties to enter the State Duma. Andrey Turchak, the chair of United Russia’s General Council, has said on multiple occasions that the party hopes to achieve a constitutional majority in the next parliamentary session. The president’s administration, on the other hand, would reportedly like for deputies loyal to Vladimir Putin to maintain a presence in various parties with various ideological agendas.
Most of the new parties are set to hold internal meetings in March 2020 so that they can be registered by the Justice Ministry in time to submit the necessary paperwork for this year’s regional legislative elections. In order to register officially as a political party, a group has to meet two conditions: It must have at least 500 members (a relatively easy figure to reach) and open local branches in at least 43 of Russia’s regions (which requires much more logistical support).
The parties’ goals on election day will vary from group to group. The “TV show parties” will only have to get a single candidate into any regional parliament, enabling them to compete for State Duma seats without voter signatures. “All you have to do is give the vice governor for politics an assignment from the Kremlin to get the party you need into the regional parliament. Then, administrative resources in a few municipalities will be focused onto that party, and that party will get its deputy and its federal electoral benefits. It’s been done before,” said a political strategist working on the presidential administration’s party-building efforts.
The parties that might actually earn seats in the State Duma will operate on a more substantial scale. They will run in every region where an election is set to take place in hopes of using those races to showcase themselves to voters and use whatever sympathies they win down the line in 2021. “The task facing the regional executive branches is not to resist,” one source close to the Kremlin said curtly.
Funding for the new parties will stem from entrepreneurs close to the Kremlin. For example, Zakhar Prilepin’s party is receiving aid from organizations tied to Federation Council member Alexander Babakov, who was formerly a major sponsor for the Homeland and A Just Russia parties. Companies tied to the wealthy Kovalchuk brothers, Mikhail and Yury, are also participating in the effort to finance new parties. The Kremlin does not welcome sponsors who actually participate in party leadership, however. It does not intend to endorse Konstantin Malofeyev’s hopes of forming a party for that reason. Malofeyev owns Tsargrad TV, a patriotism-themed television channel. He decided to go into politics publicly in 2019 and soon joined the ranks of A Just Russia, reportedly with the aim of financing revitalization efforts within the party and entering its highest ranks. However, Malofeyev ultimately tried to bring the party under his control completely to the dissatisfaction of both the Kremlin and the party’s existing leadership.
“These new projects predominantly come from the Kremlin, not from sponsors or people who were elected as party leaders,” a source close to the Putin administration concluded.